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DESE and BPS Agree to a New Model for Improvement in District

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education today released a district review report of the Boston Public School (BPS) system and announced the creation of a first-of-its-kind partnership with the district to address the persistent challenges found in the review. 

The Department reviews a number of districts each year. Each review looks at the systems, policies and practices of the district and how they impact student experiences and outcomes. In most cases, DESE gives the report to the superintendent, and the district uses it to prioritize interventions and improvements. In a few instances, a commissioner has used a district review as the basis for a recommendation that a district be put into receivership.

“The agreement between the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Boston Public School district sets specific goals and a reasonable timetable for reforms necessary to improve the district’s lowest performing schools,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “The partnership will leverage the strengths of both the Department and of the Boston Public Schools in order to support the district’s most vulnerable students and allow them to achieve at their highest potential across the system.”

“We are pleased that the Department and the district created this partnership to tackle the persistent opportunity and achievement gaps students in the Boston Public School system have continued to face,” Lt. Governor Karyn Polito said. “By working collaboratively and under the leadership of Commissioner Riley’s expertise in turnaround and struggling schools, we expect the Department and school district will be able to make changes that will be to the advantage of all Boston students.”

A three-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by DESE and BPS sets up a novel partnership involving commitments by both the district and state. In the MOU, BPS agrees to deliver measurable results on four priority initiatives drawn from the findings of the district review, and DESE agrees to support BPS on four complementary initiatives. Over the next three years, a major focus of the district will be on making measurable improvements in the 33 schools that face the most challenges in student achievement. Those schools will be defined as “transformation” schools. Boston Public Schools will also address student success in high school, programming for students with disabilities and English learners and transportation challenges, as outlined in Superintendent Brenda Cassellius’ recently released strategic plan. The strategic plan, along with the BPS budget proposal, aim to accelerate the district’s efforts to improve outcomes for students and close achievement gaps through intensive, targeted investments that will support students and educators, starting with those with the highest need. 

“This partnership is an opportunity to make much-needed changes in underperforming schools to close persistent achievement gaps, reduce dropout rates and chronic absenteeism, and tackle some of the other tough challenges the district has face for the past several years,” Education Secretary James Peyser said. “I am particularly please to see the emphasis on improving outcomes for students with disabilities, English language learners, and the adoption of MassCore as a uniform high school graduation requirement for all BPS schools.”

“The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will be an active partner with Boston Public Schools and the City of Boston as we work together on focused improvements for Boston’s students and families,” Commissioner Riley said. “Students benefit when the state enables collaborative solutions that fit the local context. I applaud Mayor Walsh and Superintendent Cassellius for their partnership in charting a new way forward for BPS.” 

For the duration of the MOU, DESE will provide additional resources for the overall partnership as well as technical support for four additional supporting initiatives in which DESE will partner closely with BPS. Those initiatives include entering an additional 15 BPS schools into a special Boston professional development cohort of the Kaleidoscope Collective for Learning, DESE’s program to foster deeper learning. Two BPS schools were already admitted into Kaleidoscope in January. The Department will also help BPS diversify its educator workforce, upgrade essential facilities, and ensure schools have access to robust partnerships. 

Each party will also adopt one longer-term initiative. Boston Public Schools will create a plan to improve services to English learners, along with appropriate interpretation and translation services. The Department will develop an earned autonomy model for BPS schools that gives more freedom to higher performing schools. These plans will be developed by May 2021.

The MOU will end on October 1, 2023. As that date approaches, DESE will look at the data associated with the partnership’s goals and determine next steps. The Commissioner may also decide to conduct an updated district review of BPS during the third year of the MOU.

“At Boston Public Schools, our first priority is to ensure every student has the opportunities they need to succeed,” said Mayor Martin Walsh. “We must do what it takes to be one great district for every student at every school in every neighborhood. Boston Public Schools’ MOU with DESE reflects our shared goals to create the best environment for our students. The Department’s report provides us an opportunity to review our progress and identify where we can provide greater support to the students we serve, and I look forward to working with all our partners to turn our goals into true continued progress.”

"All of our students deserve access to an equitable and exceptional education, and all of our families share that expectation,” said Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius. “Since joining Boston Public Schools, I've met with countless students, educators and families who share our sense of urgency to deliver on those expectations. Their input and advice helped shape the district's new strategic plan, and Mayor Walsh’s three-year, $100 million investment in our schools will help operationalize that plan. This work requires all hands on deck, and I welcome this partnership with Commissioner Riley, which will support our commitment to meet the needs of our students.” 

“This partnership builds on the Commonwealth’s renewed commitment to public school funding through the Student Opportunity Act, the School Committee’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan, and Mayor Walsh’s $100 million investment in the superintendent’s strategy to close achievement and opportunity gaps,” said Michael Loconto, chair of the Boston School Committee. “Under the leadership of Dr. Cassellius, the Boston Public Schools will work together with DESE to address challenges, close gaps and build on success at all our schools.”

BPS priority initiatives outlined in the MOU:

  1. Teaching and learning: Make specific improvements in the district’s 33 lowest performing schools, which will be defined as “transformation” schools.
  2. Equitable access to student supports: Adopt MassCore as a uniform high school graduation requirement for all BPS schools and reduce chronic absenteeism overall, especially at the high school level.
  3. Supporting students with disabilities: Increase the percentage of students with disabilities who are served in the least restrictive environment and reduce the disproportionate placement of students of color in substantially separate programs.
  4. Transportation: Improve the student transportation system.

DESE/BPS supporting initiatives outlined in the MOU:

  1. Teaching and learning: Prepare a cohort of 15 BPS schools for entrance into DESE’s Kaleidoscope Collective for Learning, a professional development initiative designed to engage students and teachers in deeper learning.
  2. Equitable access to student supports: Help broker partnerships for schools that do not have strong partners.
  3. Educator diversity and effectiveness: Help BPS recruit and retain a diverse and effective educator workforce by providing additional staff capacity and developing programs that could include such programs as homebuying incentives or signing bonuses.
  4. Facilities: Provide a DESE employee(s) to work with BPS on upgrading essential facilities such as student bathrooms. 


Under the terms of the agreement, the parties have 60 days to collaboratively address outstanding details. The parties expect to hold a convening in the spring at which they would share all the details with the community.